Reactive Attachment Disorder

Giving hands

If you’re having a hard day today and wondering what the point is of all this gentle, responsive parenting stuff, please read this chilling article about RAD or Reactive Attachment Disorder by a therapist who treats children who have it.  Children with RAD are very poorly attached to their parents, “show contempt for adults and authority, a terror of abandonment, and hatred for siblings and anyone who compete with them for mom’s affections.”  How we treat our children from the first days of their lives matters.

Children need warm, loving care from their mothers in infancy.  They deserve it.  Infants deserve their mother’s arms more than their mothers deserve a promotion, a raise, or a pat on the back.  This view is unpopular.  In fact, I should probably check my tires in the morning especially given the political climate I inhabit in the San Francisco Bay Area.  But I’m doing to say, damn it.  Babies have rights!  Their rights take precedence over the rights of the adults who have been blessed with their births.  This is called being a grown up and taking care of the people who have been placed in your care.

The author of the article, Dr. Faye Snyder, writes that:

RAD children were not born RAD. They were born to love and be loved. Every child I ever met with a propensity for violence was the natural product of extremely painful treatment, usually beginning with being left in daycare too young (perhaps as newborns) and too long (daily, throughout their first years).  It was so painful the child drew a conclusion that they were alone in the world, and they gave up on the deepest drive and hope of all, love. They gave up on loving and being loved and cherished. They were not loveable. They decided they were on their own and there was no adult in the world they could trust. They decided never to be vulnerable again, because it hurts too much.

Dr. Greg Popcak commented on RAD in this blog post.  Dr. Snyder and Dr. Popcak are not suggesting that if you work outside the home when you have an infant your child will grow up to be a murderer.  What they are trying to push back against is the message in our culture that what babies experience early on doesn’t matter because they’re brainless blobs who don’t notice anything.  They notice and it goes right to their hearts.  They are pushing back against the societal pressures on parents to neglect their children in the name of “success”.  How could any parent really feel self-fulfilled when their children are suffering?

Why is it okay for women to give 100 percent to their careers, but not to their children?  Why is the latter looked upon with suspicion, like we’ve been brainwashed into it by evil patriarchal forces?  The force that moves a mother to respond to her baby with tenderness and availability isn’t patriarchy but love.  Love is the force that moves and animates mothers in those early months, but some moms aren’t given permission to name it, to honor it, to live it.  When they sense it, they’ve been brainwashed into thinking, “What’s that?  I think that’s oppression.  Can somebody take this baby while I go to the office to save myself?”

Now, I know some moms have to work.  This is understandable and gentle parenting isn’t only for stay at home parents.  However, I am angry with the view in our culture that a mother is “weak” if she doesn’t return to work two weeks after delivering her baby.  That’s not only stupid, it’s inhumane.  For the sake of all of us — not just the family in question, but our entire population — if it’s at all possible, in the first months of an infant’s life it’s much better that Mommy is there for that baby.  I didn’t say Mommy can’t have people caring for her or helping her care for baby, but babies want their mommies. Even in cultures with extended support systems for infant care, the mothers are still the primary caregiver for their infants.  Mommies, take all the leave you can get from work, even unpaid leave.  When you have to return to work, can you return part-time?  If you’re returning before your baby is two or three years old, a single caregiver is usually preferable to commercial daycare where the staff turnover is high. (I know there are exceptions.)  Babies thrive better with a consistent primary caregiver who is warm and open than a whole staff of people who come and go.  And if you work, when you’re with your baby, strengthen that bond through play, nursing, and co-sleeping.

As Catholic parents we are always seeking to love our children “mercifully”.  Mercy requires us to identify what it is our children actually need, then to meet those needs as best we can.  Science is clear that little babies need consistent, warm, nurturing love.   Is it hard sometimes?  Yes.  But it’s a lot easier than dealing with the fall out of a child who is emotionally scarred or even psychotic because of our choices.

Thank you for loving your children even when it’s uncomfortable and even unpopular.  Not only does it help your children, but it’s a way of loving every human being your child will ever encounter!


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